The Playgoer: September 2011

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Threepenny 101

Rob Kendt in Time Out clears up some misconceptions about The Threepenny Opera on the eve of the sold-out(!) run at BAM next week of Robert Wilson's staging with the Berliner Ensemble.

In fact, Threepenny was a long-running hit at the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street in the 1950s, helping establish Off Broadway as a commercial alternative to Broadway (not to mention burnishing both Brecht’s and Weill’s post-WWII reputations). But the work has never really thrived on the Main Stem; apart from the aforementioned Roundabout and Sting versions, Joe Papp’s 1976 production, directed by Richard Foreman, managed a respectable 307-performance run, but divided the critics.
I was more favorable than Rob to Roundabout's 2006 attempt, by the way. But I was definitely in the minority.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where's Our National Theatre? Don't look to NYC

I imagine David Cote's expression of National Theatre-envy got a friendly reception on the UK's Guardian website. And I totally am with him on the sentiment--namely that the thing to envy most is not just the ethereal ideal of a "national" or "civic" theatre, but just the sheer magnitude of production that Nicholas Hytner's RNT puts out and its staggering (and I mean this in the best sense) competency. (For an example of institutional, um, non-competency see here.) In other words: is there any permanent theatre company in the US that stages so many productions at so consistently a high level and is lead by someone like Hytner who is as dynamic a director as he is administrator?

Before one tries to answer that question, though, consider some key factors. First, obviously, let's not get carried away with the National's track-record. They have their duds like anyone else, to be sure. The local audience would know that better than us, since we only get to see the hits that transfer over. The pioneering NT Live simulcast program, though, now helps give us a broader perspective on four to five shows a year. From the sampling I've enjoyed in my local cinema, I would say, indeed, not every show's a gem--but their baseline is pretty, pretty good by American standards. Especially given how much they produce.

Second: the subsidy the National gets from the government of the UK--even these times of "austerity"--dwarfs what any American arts institution would ever dream of receiving from federal, state, and foundational support combined. Hytner has a very nice financial-cushion to lean upon when he's feeling more risk-taking and, while I imagine commercial successes are surely desired by his overseers, he does not have to pursue Broadway-style "enhancement" as desperately as American AD's. (Instead, he struck a deal with a team of US producers a while ago to give them basically exclusive "first refusal" rights on transferring any National shows.) So while the pressure to end each season in the black and win some awards must be there, it seems not as straightjacketing as it can often be over on this side of the ocean.

It's also hard to find a New York theatre working on the scale of the National because of sheer space. First, the National actually owns their own building at all! (Or at least they act like they do.) Second, said building has three fully functioning stages all equipped with the latest in stage technology. The Public has three or four functioning spaces, but not all are up to speed, shall we say. (We'll see after the renovation, I guess.) Lincoln Center Theatre will soon debut their new rooftop space for the "LCT3" new play program. So that will actually get them pretty close to the National's set up. But otherwise, all our other companies wishing to produce more than one play at a time need to rent space elsewhere.

There's also the issue of having a permanent repertory company of actors. The National has struck what seems like a workable balance between allowing "name" stars to join for one or two productions a season while relying on a corps of versatile actors to fill out most of the cast, each doing three (or more) shows at a time. This is something that seems well-nigh impossible in New York, outside of the brave little Pearl Theatre. American actors, it seems, simply cannot afford to tie themselves down to one gig for a whole year, especially at an Equity Off Broadway minimum salary. (Roughly $250-$350/week on average.) They can't even afford to stay in one city a whole year, what with Pilot Season in LA and the temptation of supplementary summer, stock, and regional gigs.

So there's that.

For something the sheer size, scope and budget of the National to exist in NYC, a very big building would have to be given over to someone and without the worry of ever turning a profit. Good luck with that.

But we would feel better about ourselves if we looked beyond New York and sought out the potential for National-esque accomplishment in some of our larger LORT theatres around the country. The Guthrie certainly has the right kind of building--a gynormous complex of stages, shops, and workspaces. Trouble is: it's been a while since something came out of there artistically that people talked about. (Except perhaps the premiere of the last Kushner play.) And now that they finally have their shot at a PBS broadcast, they're doing HMS Pinafore??? So much for a US "national" theatre.

Staying on the subject of size, Oregon Shakespeare Festival still holds the potential for competing. But consistency and quality seem to have long been holding back nation-wide enthusiasm. Let's see if new AD Bill Rauch can turn that reputation around.

In terms of sheer plaudits and cultural capital, Steppenwolf would have a claim. Their landmark productions of uber-Americana epics like Grapes of Wrath and August: Osage County toured the world and put two new "classics" into the repertory. Not to mention their history showcasing definitive productions of the work of Sam Shepard. Still... there's a reason we don't hear about most of the average Steppenwolf season: it's often made up of humdrum regional theatre fare and successful English plays. They've expanded their spaces recently so stay tuned.

Might I suggest that Bob Falls' Goodman Theatre--Steppenwolf's downtown rival--may be coming closer than any other US company to the National model: i.e., a big building led by an adventurous, seasoned director producing at a professionally high level to frequent wide acclaim?  They even have some resident star actors, like Brian Dennehy, who may not live in Chicago but whose ongoing collaboration with Falls has helped make the Goodman perhaps the premiere site for the exploration of the O'Neill oeuvre. (Note their big Iceman Cometh this season, with Dennehy and Nathan Lane.) Falls and Dennehy also developed that landmark Death of a Salesman a decade ago that then conquered Broadway. So much for American meat and potatoes, but even with their rare outings with the classics they make noise. Falls' Balkan-set King Lear was, for me, one of the best US Shakespeares in quite a while. His sponsorship of another major Chicago-based American director, Mary Zimmerman, has also brought dividends--most recently with her beautiful reimagining of Leonard Berinstein's Candide, which I caught in DC and is now playing in Boston...but has seemingly not had any interest in NYC.

(By the way, on the subsidy question: I can't speak off the cuff about this, but my sense is that the city of Chicago has been instrumental in supporting and promoting both Goodman and Steppenwolf--even if to the chagrin of the city's many fine smaller troupes. Smaller pond perhaps for Chicago grants and arts-philanthropy bucks than in NYC. But still: subsidies help.)

Anyway, I hardly go to the Goodman regularly enough to stand by this argument. I offer it only as a provocation to us, that next time we go searching for that American National Theatre, let's remember to looking at...America. All of America. Some cities may just be better able to support such an endeavor than the overcrowded, price-inflated, 24-hour real-estate scramble that is the island of Manhattan.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Kill the Author!"

Declan Kiberd  reminds us why Synge's Playboy of the Western World, now a cozy mainstay of the repertory, was once the most shocking play Ireland had ever seen:

Ireland in 1907 saw itself as ready for self-rule and it expected its artists to promote the image of a steady, sober, self-reliant people. Instead, with The Playboy of the Western World, Synge gave them a play in which a village loon splits his father's head open with a spade, runs away, tells people he "killed his da" and is promptly installed as a hero by excitable women and drunken men. Worse still, this drama was staged not in some backstreet art-house, but at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre, one of whose mission statements was to show that Ireland was not the home of buffoonery but of an ancient idealism....

The Irish Times's critic identified one cause of the trouble: "It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream."
Definitely makes my list of All-Time Best Opening Nights Ever.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Photo of the Day

Playwriting class at the New School for Social Research, New York, circa 1941. At left: Tennessee Williams. At right: Arthur Miller.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: "Seed"

I'm back in print this week with a review in Time Out of Seed, courtesy of Classical Theatre of Harlem and Hip Hop Theatre Fest.

Not seedy, I'll say that much.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dumb-Censorship Watch

Typical of overreacting school boards...

The Associated Press reports that the Richland School District in Johnstown, PA, canceled its February 2012 production of Kismet following concerns raised by community members over staging the Baghdad-set musical about a Muslim street poet so close to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The community is a relatively short distance from the Shanksville, PA, crash site of United Airlines Flight 93."We're not saying there's anything bad about the musical. We may potentially produce it in the future," school superintendent Thomas Fleming told the AP.
So no Muslims in musicals--not that there's anything wrong with them!

And banning positive images of the Arab world--and of the country we just spent a decade decimating--helps heal wounds how...?

By the way, in case you're wondering how threateningly foreign this 1953 all-singing, all-dancing, all-jihad show is, this will certainly make you want to call Homeland Security pronto...

Yes, the music is adapted from that Russian sleeper-cell agent, Alexander Borodin.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Rise of the Resident Playwright?

So what do we think of Signature's announcement of five playwright residencies?

Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, and Regina Taylor [will] be charter members of a program to develop and stage their new works. The program, called Residency Five, guarantees three full productions of new plays by each writer over the next five years. Each will also receive a $50,000 cash award, stipends to attend theater, and health insurance benefits. Additional playwrights will be added to the mix in the coming years as writers rotate out of the program.
First let's get the obvious carping out of the way. Kenneth Lonergan does not need playwright-welfare. Katori Hall (The Mountaintop) already has an Olivier award behind her and a Broadway premiere approaching. Annie Baker is today in a position to have her next napkin-scribble read by the nation's top ten theaters. Will Eno and Regina Taylor have been produced quite a lot around the country over the past few years.

That said, there's much to like in concept here, I think. I like the $50--a hearty sum but not exorbitant. (Like, say, handing Tony Kushner another quarter-mil.) I'm all for needy playwrights getting big piles of money, but reasonable amounts set a good precedent, giving other theaters and funders something to aim for. So, for instance, this Signature plan "spreads the wealth" of $250K among five writers, instead of giving it all to one Kushner. In some circles, believe it or not, $250K is not an impossible sum to raise!

(By the way, I'm assuming the $50K is a one-time payment, not annually for the five years. The latter would be super, of course, but even the former is not bad. Especially with the ongoing health benefits, something playwrights don't have a union for like Actors Equity.)

Offering everyone three productions does seem a bit much. I mean, do all these writers even have three good plays in their proverbial bottom drawers? Does Signature have the resources for fifteen full productions of these sight-unseen scripts?

So my hope is that--along with Suzan Lori-Parks' relationship with the Public and Arena Stage's big program--the idea of resident playwrights or more formal compensating relationships between companies and playwrights will start catching on. But rather than guaranteeing 50-grand to five writers everyone knows for three shows about $10K to four unknown writers for two shows each?

Better yet: if ten theater companies across the country could house four playwrights each (and we made sure all ten didn't pick the same people!) that would put forty early-career dramatists to work!  And more importantly--pump eighty new plays into circulation very quickly. Out of those eighty, I bet some would  be really good.

Monday, September 19, 2011


-Riedel surveys the Broadway trend of touching up (and dumbing down?) already-running big shows for the tourists. As with Billy Elliot, these seem to be mostly cases of translation from English (or Aussie) to American.

-Peter Marks in WaPo dishes on "Porgy" dishing and talks with Michael Kahn about how often classics are substantially revised. (More than you'd think.)

-And remember that "new" Oscar Wilde play being done in London? Well, maybe not.  Or so says Oscar Wilde, Jr.-- I mean, his grandson.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Every time I see some kid on the subway watching The Godfather on his iPod, I think, 'Fuck it, I want to do a play.'"

Porgy Peek

Some video on the new Porgy and Bess out of Boston. (And pace Riedel, it is still coming to Broadway.)

It's from WGBH's "Greater Boston" tv show. Full 30-minute(!) segment here, but this part has the most stage footage, as well as some nice historical overview of this major and complicated work of American theatre.

Forget rewrites-- my biggest misgiving is the set! That's Catfish Row?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dancin' in the Dark

After a near collapse of the finish of their '09-'10 season, Roundabout Theatre has stumbled into another programming embarrassment right out of the gate this year. (I guess big cheese Todd Haimes didn't heed my advice from before.)

This is already old news from late August, but I'm still stunned that not only did they inexplicably decide to open the season with an ill-advised revival of Bob Fosse's 1978 omnibus revue, Dancin'...but that they couldn't even see it through to opening!  As Riedel reported:

The nonprofit company announced plans to revive Bob Fosse's 1978 revue "Dancin' "... in September with enhancement money from commercial producers. But that money hasn't come through, and sources say the Roundabout's reluctant to pick up the tab by itself. This is the second time the Roundabout's scrapped the show, and some people wonder if it's ever going to come together.

"Dancin' " was a big hit in its day -- it ran 1,774 performances -- and was nominated for the Tony for Best Musical. Fosse won the Tony for his choreography. "The truth is, it's just not very good," says a top Broadway director, who points out that the best numbers -- "Sing, Sing, Sing," "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" and "Crunchy Granola Suite" -- were used to better effect in the 1999 Tony-winning revue "Fosse."
Let's start with the question, again, of .... why Dancin'????  Fosse good, yes. But while remounting classic dance can work in the ballet house (and to some extent on Broadway in revivals of shows with "recreations" of original choreography Fosse or Jerome Robbins), Dancin' seems so of its time--Crunchy Granola Suite???--as the handiwork of a living auteur.

But to announce such a folly without even the financing in place? And who were these "commercial producers"?  I have this terrible feeling Todd Haimes got hosed by a really shaky "enhancement" deal.

The upshot of all this is that--once again--one of the Roundabout's main Broadway venues (Studio 54) is sitting there dark for what looks like most of the Fall season. Worse, the rest of their announced lineup is hardly buzz-worthy. I myself am looking forward to seeing Frank Langella rediscover an obscure Terence Rattigan vehicle... but is anyone else? Two new plays in the Off Broadway spaces might potentially score but so far are totally unknown quantities. And then yet another Brit-loving revival no one asked for: Look Back in Anger? (A play that in performance today never seems to live up to its cage-rattling reputation.) And as much as I admire Athol Fugard, we have a revival of his 1987 Road to Mecca?

When you're the most well-funded nonprofit theatre company in New York--with five stages at your disposal--one would imagine you could commandeer any number of exciting artists and projects. And this is the best they can do?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Age Before Beauty

Guardian's Molly Flat celebrates the theatre's unique showcasing of the gifts of older actors:

Theatre, largely unbound by Hollywood's obsession with youth, has always been a good place to play out the threats and opportunities posed by age. On film and TV, even the oldest actors are somehow softened and defused by the fourth wall of a screen; on stage, their energy, bodies and hearts are unmediated....

I will never forget Michael Gambon's 2004 turn as Hamm in Samuel Beckett's aptly named Endgame. In this play, it is not just the man in the wheelchair before us who is threadbare and dispossessed; the world is ageing too. Gambon played Hamm as a monster of redundancy: a great, flailing embroidered lump grasping for the vestiges of his power with petty, pathetic cruelty; but he was also cuttingly wise and eloquent and funny, and certainly no more pathetic than Lee Evans's inept young Clov. Gambon's inimitable voice, at once vulnerable and brutal, lyrical and booming, captured the dichotomy at the centre of the play: the interdependent glory and grotesquery of man, not diminished but distilled by the passing of the years.
Ah the presence of the living body...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Quote of the Day

“I am deeply honored by this news, and wish my mother and father were alive to hear it!...All that education, allowance, tuition, voice lessons, summer jobs, scholarship application deadlines and loving care and discipline – all that they gave me, bore fruit in a way they never dreamed. I am so grateful!”

-Meryl Streep, upon learning she will be a recipient of one of this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

Feel free to forward to your folks, drama majors...

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Don't Loves You, Porgy

Unless you retreated into a total theatre news blackout in August, you probably have heard about (or even read) Stephen Sonhdeim's snarky takedown of the team behind the new "revised" and Broadway-bound Porgy & Bess.

The revival has now premiered at ART in Cambridge, MA, where it has been developed by director Diane Paulus, the company's AD. Ben Brantley's largely unfavorable review of that pre-Broadway opening has spurred gossip over whether the project will basically fold as a commercial venture, not come to Broadway, and simply play out its limited run at ART. Riedel today quotes a source as confiding, "You'd better rush up to Boston if you want to see the show." Maybe he/she was joking.

I don't right now feel like getting into the substantive arguments about the show itself and Porgy's  dramaturgical challenges--I haven't seen the ART production, for one thing. But I do want to come to Brantley and NYT's defense in reviewing that opening, despite Riedel's claim that the critic "broke the once hard-and-fast rule that New York critics don't review out-of-town tryouts of Broadway-bound shows." 
What such complaints miss is that Broadway or no Broadway, this was not just an "out-of-town tryout" but a major opening at one of our country's leading regional theatres. (Their season opener, no less.) Under normal circumstances, ART would be thrilled to have Ben Brantley come review their show.  And indeed, Brantley and (mostly) Isherwood have traveled around reviewing many regional theatre productions in recent years. (As if to refute my frequent carping here about lack of NYT attention to non-NYC theatre. Well played, gents.) 

In fact, I even received a press invite to the ART opening myself. (I'm on their press mailing list.) And I'm one of those pesky bloggers that's supposedly ruining artists' supposed right to privacy in public performances. So what does that say?

Finally, another issue worth clarifying is the awkward re-titling of the show as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Sondheim, rightfully, complained that this leaves out the quite essential contribution of DuBose Heyward, who wrote not only many of the lyrics but also the novel and play that the musical is based on. And he's also right that it seems inappropriate to single out this production as somehow uniquely "The Gershwins'" version when, not only are they dead, but this incarnation is probably the most extensively altered to ever appear on these shores. (True, Trevor Nunn recently mounted an unsuccessful reduced version in London.) 

But there's a very simple explanation for this curious title-- branding. Or to be precise, updating the brand. ("New Coke" serves as perhaps a depressingly instructive model.) Remember William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet? That was the official title of the film that should have been called "Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet"--certainly the least "strict constructionist" version of the play out there. In movies, though, there's at least one very simple reason for such a tweak: product catalogues. When someone wants to rent (or now download, stream, etc) a movie of Romeo and Juliet, several versions will show up. But there's only one William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet!  Even though it's arguably the one that least reflects the Bard.

(This rationale also explained other nineties costume epics like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Although in those cases, some claim to authenticity--getting back to the original source material--was also cited.)

No, Porgy doesn't have to worry about competing versions on sale at the same time. But who knows, they eventually probably want to put out a CD, maybe even a video.

And there, people, is the lovely logic of corporate branding.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Happy 100th, Tennessee

While I've been away I did some writing for American Theatre's special feature marking the Tennessee Williams centennial. You'll have to buy the print mag to read my overview of some recent Williams-related publications, but online you can learn a lot about the lesser-known  oeuvre from Lonnie Firestone, Eileen Blumenthal, and Thomas Keith.

Money quote from Keith:

It can be jaw-dropping to fully grasp how low Williams's reputation had fallen by the time of his death in 1983. The slide began in 1963, when the Broadway production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore altered the view that a Williams play was necessarily a commercial property....Although Arthur Miller and Edward Albee experienced similar periods of rejection, neither encountered the contempt that Williams did. Each of them lived long enough to become elder statesmen of the American theatre. Williams died at the nadir of his career, and the critical chill continued post-mortem. His plays from the 1960s and 1970s were mostly forgotten or avoided, and the unproduced material seemed to be solely the concern of scholars.
So here's to you, Thomas Lanier Williams.

Have another round on us...